A key Kentucky lawmaker plans to push proposals in the upcoming legislative session that would begin lifting a curtain of secrecy that shrouds many investigative records and court proceedings involving abused children.
State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said Friday he will introduce legislation in the 2010 General Assembly that would require state child-protection officials to release their records on children who died or were severely injured as a result of abuse or neglect.
Burch said he is concerned that, in some child abuse cases, "the Cabinet didn't do their job right or they had heavy caseloads and didn't have time to look at the case sufficiently."
Also on Friday, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton said he supports a proposal that would create a pilot program for opening Kentucky's closed-door family courts. Most other states open child-protection courts to some degree.
Kentucky had the highest rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect in the United States during 2007, according to a report released in October by a national child-advocacy group called Every Child Matters Education Fund.
The non-profit group in Washington, D.C., reported that 41 Kentucky children died from abuse and neglect in 2007 — a rate of 4.09 deaths per 100,000 Kentucky children. The group has called on state officials to make public specific information about each child's death, including whether he or she had previous contact with state social workers.
Kentucky law permits the disclosure of details about children who die from abuse or neglect but does not appear to mandate release of the information.
Each year, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services produces an annual report of deaths and near-deaths caused by child abuse and neglect, but it does not provide any specifics about each child's case.
The Herald-Leader has filed an appeal in Franklin Circuit Court of the cabinet's denial of a request for records in the May death of 22-month-old Kayden Branham, who died in Wayne County after drinking liquid drain cleaner that was allegedly being used to manufacture methamphetamine.
At least 12 states have passed laws requiring that child-protection records be released when a child dies from neglect or abuse.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Friday that Burch can expect support.
"The House is more than willing to look for ways to make life safer for our youngest citizens," Stumbo said, "and if Rep. Burch believes this is an effective approach to take, I expect the chamber will be supportive of his efforts."
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Senate President David Williams said Friday that Williams would want to see the legislation before commenting on it.
Cabinet spokeswoman Anya Weber said cabinet officials look forward to reviewing the bill.
"Our practice is to address confidentiality in the manner dictated by state statute and regulation," Weber said. "Opening such records is a complicated issue that would require careful thought and deliberation in order to protect innocent family members."
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said Friday that his Louisville-based organization would support legislation to open abuse records and family courts.
"The current undue emphasis on confidentiality only hides issues in the child-welfare system," said Brooks. "Broader public exposure is a beginning step to fixing many of the issues that afflict child protection. It is a tough proposition but the right balance can be found between privacy rights, system accountability and disclosure for the sake of system improvements."
Beshear urges study
In 2008, a bill that would have opened Kentucky's child-protection courts to the public on a limited basis was rejected by the House Judiciary Committee. The proposal would have opened four to seven child-protection courts in Kentucky for four years on a test basis.
Burch said Friday that he is considering filing a similar bill in 2010.
"I would support similar legislation if introduced again," Minton said Friday in a statement.
"We have a number of judges who work daily in the system who have openly expressed their support for allowing the public to see what is going on in certain types of juvenile proceedings," Minton said. "These judges are attempting to follow model programs that have been successful across the country and to bring best practices to the courts of Kentucky."
However, Gov. Steve Beshear's office offered a more cautious opinion of the proposal to open some juvenile courts.
"Any effort to open family court — even in a limited basis — would require considerable input from a number of sources, including judges and attorneys as well as family advocates," said Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear. "Protecting innocent family members, especially children, remains an important consideration."
Burch said he believes a recent series of articles on child abuse by The Courier-Journal of Louisville has increased support for both measures.
The newspaper reported this week that since 2000, Kentucky Child Protective Services officials had investigated reports of problems involving 149 of the 267 Kentucky children who subsequently died from abuse or neglect, according to the annual reports on such deaths produced by the cabinet.
Burch, who has been chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee for 27 years, said many legislators don't understand the complexities and challenges faced by the state's overburdened child-protection system.
Opening that system for review would show the public and the legislature the strengths and weaknesses of the system, Burch said. He said it would also hold social workers and family court judges accountable for their actions.